Lawmakers debate free lunch for all students or more needs-based support

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State Rep. Sherae'a Moore's (D-Middletown) House Bill 125 would enable the state to cover the cost of school meals for all Delaware students in public schools.

The bill cleared the House Education Committee this week with only nine of 16 members voting to release it to the House Appropriations Committee, with several lawmakers raising concerns about the bill's $40 million annual fiscal cost.

"Why would we offer a free meal to an affluent family — somebody that can afford it?" State Rep. Valerie Jones Giltner (R-Georgetown) asked.

State Rep. Bryan Shupe (R-Milford South) agreed with Jones Giltner, and says he plans to introduce his own bill this week that covers the cost of meals for students eligible for reduced-price school breakfast and lunches.

Currently, students who are in households that receive federal assistance from programs like SNAP or TANF qualify for free school meals, as well as those who are homeless.

Shupe’s bill would enable the state to additionally cover meal costs for students whose family’s income is between 130% and 185% of the federal poverty threshold.

“I do think means testing helps us achieve a place where we can get to the families that we need, whatever that means testing looks like... without paying for the families that obviously can pay for themselves," Shupe adds.

Shupe’s bill would cost the state substantially less than Moore's bill at around $300,000 annually.

Co-sponsor of Moore's bill, State Rep. Eric Morrison (D-Glasgow), argues there are several families who do not meet means-testing thresholds who still need financial assistance: "I know from working in means-tested programs like Medicaid and other healthcare programs — that doesn't mean you're always catching the people who need the help. A lot of time you are not. There are so many different factors that are not taken into consideration with means-tested programs when you are saying 'here's a solid cutoff point."

"It's really about feeding children, and the state should be paying for it, in my opinion, because families are already providing for so much, especially right now, and we're not even talking about inflation," Moore adds.

In her defense of the bill, she also brought up legislation from State Rep. Sherry Dorsey Walker (D-Wilmington), which passed in the House on Thursday and will now move to the Senate for consideration.

The bill prohibits schools from excluding a student from school sponsored extracurricular activities on the basis the student has an outstanding debt for unpaid school meals, which passed unanimously in the House Education Committee.

"Everybody agreed that no student should be penalized for a delinquent lunch account. So how we make sure we take it all away is by this bill," Moore says.

Moore's legislation was signed out of committee on a party-line vote, except for House Education Committee Chair Kim Williams (D-Stanton), who raised concerns over the bill’s expected annual cost of around $40 million.

“I am on [the Joint Finance Committee], and I do know where our budget is, and I have to say, I do have concerns about this... I do agree with a lot of the comments that were made about providing lunches for those who can afford it. I would like to see our tax dollars go to other educational needs.”

Williams says she’s asked the Department of Education how much it would cost to only provide free breakfast, and says although she isn’t supporting this bill, she would instead support covering the cost of students on the reduced lunch program, like what is proposed in Shupe's bill.

Williams wasn't the only Democratic legislator concerned about covering the cost of meals for families who can afford it.

State Rep. Stell Parker Selby (D-Milton), State Rep. Nnamdi Chukwuocha (D-Wilmington) and Ed Osienski (D-Newark) all voted to release the bill from committee but expressed concerns over the bill's price tag.

Moore's legislation will head the the full House for a vote if it passes in the House Appropriations Committee. Shupe's legislation, although not yet filed, will likely receive an initial hearing in the House Education Committee within the coming weeks.

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Before residing in Dover, Delaware, Sarah Petrowich moved around the country with her family, spending eight years in Fairbanks, Alaska, 10 years in Carbondale, Illinois and four years in Indianapolis, Indiana. She graduated from the University of Missouri in 2023 with a dual degree in Journalism and Political Science.